S-Town, the new This American Life and Serial mini series, unfurls like a true crime investigation but soon morphs into a long and complex story about a man and his community. This American Life reporter Brian Reed is called down to Woodstock, Alabama, by an eccentric antique clock restorer, John B. McLemore to investigate a murder and police coverup. But the murder investigation deflates like a souffle and we’re stuck listening to John B rant and rave about climate change and the end of the world. Imagine an unkempt red-headed man who loves flowers and clocks, but is way too into conspiracies (tin hat and other). He is like your older uncle figure that you run into at family events, who is gleefully politically incorrect and yet inconsolable about the decrepitude of humanity, climate change.
A Rose for Emily is the end credits song for S-Town. It is also one of the creepiest short stories I’ve ever read by the singular William Faulkner.
My senior year English teacher was a Faulkner aficionado, as in she mapped out the character Quentin’s last day from The Sound and the Fury. This probably doesn’t sound that hard, except Quentin is going through a mental breakdown while wandering through Cambrdige and isn’t the most coherent narrator. In addition to A Rose for Emily, the Sound and the Fury, we also had to endure Faulkner’s short story “Tomorrow.” I use the word “endure” to both describe the obtuseness of Faulkner’s prose and the general squickiness of the content.
The titular Emily is a curious mirror for John B. Like John B, she came from privileged circumstances but falls prey to the rules of society. John B feels smothered, and Emily is a victim of her aristocratic upbringing. In a time, when a woman is measured by her marriage, she and her father turn down potential suitors until she’s too old to marry. Finally, she finds someone who will “love” her, but he’s kind of a dick and the community also doesn’t approve of him. So she eventually murders him and is reduced to loving his corpse. You know, your usual slurry of of southern decay, delusion, and desperate loneliness.
I didn’t have the most charitable view of John B. He seemed to encompass bad traits and wasted potential; the brilliant but awkward boy who turned into angry man whose vast intellect to bludgeon himself and those who had the bad fortune to get too close. Perhaps it was his town that smothered him, but mostly I blamed him for his own misery. I didn’t care much for his friends and family, but my favorite episodes were episode four and six which explores his professional and personal relationships outside of his hometown.
We tend to investigate the heroes and the criminals. Sometimes the heroes are troubled and sometimes the criminals started with the best intentions, but we rarely look deep into characters who are swallowed up by their own hurt. (At least, in the American tradition, the Russians on the other hand…) John B was someone who hurt intensely and complexly. He could be depressed in a mean, vicious, manipulative way. But even for someone as intelligent and funny as John, even when you use colorful language as John does, the topic of pain is draining and upsetting and most significantly, boring.
Also, John B, like most people, is horrible at telling you who they are and what is their heart’s desire. That’s why you need to talk to his old tattoo artist, the guy who cut his grass, and his old college professor, and then have Ira Glass splice it all together.
What I loved about S-Town is that how with careful reporting someone who I would have found repugnant in real life and mildly interesting in a novel can be someone I shed tears over. There was a lot of ugliness in S-Town (thoughtlessness, repression, racism, several toxic and hopeless people) but there is a lot of goodness that coexists alongside it.
In episode two, we get a dry summary of John B’s life by someone who didn’t really know him, and Brian Reed is saddened by how John B was reduced from a complex being to three-line story about a clever boy who liked machines. Reed then slowly and methodically fleshes this portrait of John B in both scope and time.
John B was an amazing person; and in that respect, we’re all amazingly rich and complex people. We just don’t all have personal investigative journalists.
But we do have William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, and George Eliot, and probably a bunch of Russians. I remember finishing the film version of Tomorrow and feeling sick to my stomach. At the time I had been raised on a steady diet of science fiction and fantasy novels, populated by teenage protagonists who solved problems and saved the world, more or less.
Tomorrow explores the hung jury of a case of murder of bad apple Buck Thorpe. It zeroes on the single juror who hung the jury, and about how he loved a woman once, a pregnant woman fleeing her abusive husband, and then dies in childbirth. And how said-juror had loved that child, who had been taken away from him and grown up to be a shithead. And there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about any of that, except not acquit the man who shot his pseudo son.
I remember feeling so upset by this. Upset at Faulkner and his insistence of telling stories where the heroes are left defeated in the dust or else revealed that there are no heroes and everything is shit. Life is messy. That’s why I read books where the heroes got metaphorical twenty dollar bills and the villains get a punch in the face.
And then, I listened to S-Town and now I just want to listen to it again. Listen to John B froth at the mouth again while this time knowing his story. Sometimes it’s not about saving the world or salvation. Sometimes it’s about bearing witness.